Hall of Fame 2010: Don Pierce

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By Joe Clancy

Don Pierce wanted to be a jockey – badly – but not badly enough to take the bus from Coos Bay, Oregon to Hollywood Park.

“My mom gave me money for Greyhound, but I wanted to keep the money so I hitchhiked,” he said. “You could hitchhike back then. Of course, by the time I got there, the Hollywood meet had ended so I went to Del Mar.”

He walked hots, learned to be an exercise rider, turned 16, rode his first race at Ruidoso Downs in 1954 and finished with more than 3,500 wins in a 30-year career. Selected by the Historic Review Committee, Pierce earns Hall of Fame induction this year for a career spent mainly in California but one that found success all over the country.

“He held his own wherever he went,” said Hall of Fame trainer Allen Jerkens, who used Pierce on numerous horses. “He was a good, strong rider and I’m happy for him. I’m glad he’ll be here and I’m sure it means a lot to him.”

Pierce, 73, confirmed that assessment via telephone from BWI Airport Wednesday afternoon.

“I was kind of expecting it because I’ve been nominated a bunch and some friends had told me, but it’s been a long time and it’s a great honor,” he said. “To get in there with jocks I rode against and respected – guys like Arcaro, Shoe, Johnny Rotz, Walter Blum – is a wonderful thing. It means a lot.”

Pierce was born in Oklahoma but moved to Oregon as a child. A friend’s father trained Quarter Horses and Pierce became a jockey in match races in Oregon and California during the summer.

“I could ride, ride a horse anyway, so that’s how it started,” he said. “We rode in Levi’s, tennis shoes and a baseball cap backward, no pari-mutuels, no starting gate – it was slap and tap.”

Pierce won races, but also rode steers in between and knew precious little about racing until someone intervened with a suggestion.

“You’re small, you’re light, you can ride a little bit,” the man said. “You should go to the races.”

Pierce never got the man’s name and never saw him again. But took the advice.

He set off to become a jockey – pocketing his mother’s bus fare and signing up for the old-time racetrack career path of apprentice jockey. Back then, trainers took jockeys’ contracts and taught them the sport from the ground. Pierce was a hotwalker, making a living like the rest, first with trainer Hurst Philpott. Jack Howard taught the fledgling jockey to cross his reins, place his feet, gallop a horse. Pierce followed horses to Las Vegas, where a racetrack lasted less than two weeks in 1953 because nobody went to the races, then to Phoenix. He hooked on with trainer A.J. Horn, who was headed to New Mexico. Pierce rode his first race on Opening Day 1954 at Ruidoso Downs, and won.

“It changed my life,” he said simply.

From there, the career path went straight up. Pierce became a force in the tough southern California jockey colony. He rode for Mesh Tenney, Charlie Whittingham, Robert Wheeler and others. In 1973, he led the country with 32 stakes wins. He won the Santa Anita Handicap four times, took five consecutive runnings of the Los Angeles Handicap.

In 1964, he was the regular rider of Kentucky Derby hopeful Hill Rise. Together, they won several key preps including the San Felipe and Santa Anita Derby until Pierce was replaced by his friend Bill Shoemaker.

“I was hiding him, letting him win by a neck, a half-length, because I knew Shoe was looking for a ride,” Piece said. “They told me Shoe was going to ride him in the Derby, and I finally slapped Hill Rise on the shoulder and he won by 10 I think.”

Hill Rise took the Derby Trial (with Shoemaker), but lost the Derby itself to Northern Dancer. Pierce got back on and won several races with the horse, who went on to become Champion Miler in England. Other stars piloted by Pierce included Flying Paster (a frequent foe of Spectacular Bid), Quack, Triple Bend, Kennedy Road, Forceten and others.

“I never rode a great horse, but there have only been a few of them – Secretariat, Dr. Fager, Buckpasser, maybe one or two more in my mind,” he said. “I rode a lot of good horses.”

Pierce laughed when asked about his riding style.

“I was great if I was on a horse who could run, but so was everybody else,” he said. “I was a come-from-behind rider, always gave a horse a chance. I was a good finishing rider. People thought I was getting left at the gate sometimes, but that’s the way it worked.”

Pierce didn’t stay in California exclusively. He won a riding title at Belmont Park and enjoyed stakes success in the Hopeful (Outing Class, 1962) and Jim Dandy (Forceten, 1975) at Saratoga. Ralph Theroux Sr., father of NYRA racing office employee Ralph Jr., was Pierce’s agent in New York.

Jerkens recalled some good rides, including a narrow loss aboard Shirley Jones in the Beldame.

“She just got beat, just got beat,” the trainer said. “Ralph was a good friend of mine and they rode some winners for us; Pierce could ride anywhere. I remember how disappointed they were when they lost the mount on Hill Rise. Well, who wouldn’t be?”

In a nod of respect from his fellow jockeys, Pierce won the 1967 George Woolf Memorial award, which honors jockeys whose “careers and personal character earn esteem” in racing. The future Hall of Famer retired in 1984, after 3,546 wins from 28,740 mounts. He lives near Del Mar in Encinitas, Calif., where he recently started working with the track’s clockers.